Focus on the Family

Developing a Healthy Sexual Relationship

by Dr. Juli Slattery

Like most newlyweds, Josh and Lauren had anticipated the unity and ecstasy of married sexuality. Even though their honeymoon wasn't perfect, they still hoped that they would "click" and discover the ultimate beauty of sexual oneness. After two years of frustration, their optimism began to wane.

Sexual issues topped the list of their arguments. He complained that she was never interested. She responded by pointing out his obvious lack of romantic overtures. How could something designed to create unity have become so divisive in their young marriage?

Marital intimacy is fraught with hindrances such as poor communication, unmet expectations and resentment, primarily stemming from the vast differences between male and female sexuality. Perhaps you and your spouse have found yourselves frustrated in the bedroom, in which case it's probably time for some continuing education.

Become a student of your spouse. It took me 10 years of school to become a psychologist. Throughout that time, I was exposed to a fair amount of information on human sexuality. Needless to say, I felt more equipped than the average wife to understand a husband's needs. Boy, did I overestimate my sex education!

Regardless of your background, you have a lot to learn about your spouse's sexuality. In fact, much of what you assume may actually be wrong. If you want a deeply satisfying sex life, you must go back to being a student. In the following series, we'll look at how God made men and women different sexually, and how creating genuine intimacy requires vulnerability, effort and creativity.


Intimacy and Sex: How Men and Women are Different — and Why

Although couples often argue about sex, they rarely talk about it. Try to talk and pray together about your sex life at least once a month.

by Dr. Juli Slattery

The first path to a satisfying sex life is through increased knowledge of your spouse's sexual mindset.

Guys, one of your challenges is to understand the incredible complexity of your wife's sexuality. I recommend reading The Way to Love Your Wife by Cliff and Joyce Penner. Gals, we need help understanding our husbands' struggles and temptations. My eyes were opened after I read about the sexual temptations men face. As you read, talk openly about what you are learning.

I've already mentioned the need to become a student of your spouse. The greatest roadblock to this is a lack of communication. Although couples often argue about sex, they rarely talk about it. Consider discussing your insecurities, temptations, turn-ons and turn-offs. Try to talk and pray together about your sex life at least once a month. Because these topics are so sensitive, be a sympathetic and supportive listener.

Accept what you can't understand. In all my efforts to understand my husband, I eventually became frustrated with the gender gap that we could never bridge. We could talk until we had no words left and still not know what it feels like to be in the other person's skin.

The problem was rooted in the fact that neither of us had accepted what we could not understand: Men often view sex as a physical release and a way to reconnect with their wives, while women tend to see it as an outgrowth of their emotional intimacy.

Gals, we struggle to understand why men are tempted visually. Guys, you may not understand the emotional energy sex requires from your wife. (What makes matters more complicated is our own human shortcomings and selfishness.)

There comes a point when we have to move beyond understanding and come to a place of acceptance. God simply created men and women differently. When we genuinely accept each other, without judgment and resentment, we can begin to enjoy our differences.

I have often wondered why God made men and women so different. Wouldn't it have been easier and more pleasurable if we had the same needs, drives and preferences?

These differences are actually designed to show us how to give ourselves to each other in love. According to the Bible, true love can be expressed only through unselfishness.

Were it possible for me to love my husband while pursuing my own selfish desires, I would never know the beauty of real love. A great sex life is only possible as both the husband and wife commit to laying their needs down for the other.

One of God's great gifts for us is marital sex. Through it, we gain an even richer blessing: the experience of loving and being loved unselfishly.


Great Sex Doesn't Just Happen

Without effort, time and attention, sex can easily and quickly become mundane and predictable and can even turn into a dreaded necessity to place on the 'to-do' list.

by Dr. Juli Slattery

Having sex is a natural physiological practice. People have figured it out on their own since the beginning of time. Without how-to books or online instructional courses, people from every tribe and nation manage to procreate. Because sex is natural, we tend to put it in the category of other natural physical acts like eating and sleeping. You don't have to focus on learning how to master these things – they just naturally happen.

Although sex "just happens," a dynamic sex life does not. Without effort, time and attention, sex can easily and quickly become mundane and predictable and can even turn into a dreaded necessity to place on the "to-do" list.

When couples run into difficulties they tend to give up, concluding, "We're just not that great together." Ironically, they don't expect anything else in marriage to "just happen." They understand that being financially healthy depends on budgets, planning and communication. Even staying healthy requires a proactive approach to food and exercise. Why should sex be any different?

What is the right response to the age-old dilemma of boring sex?

As a couple, have you ever set aside significant time and energy specifically to improve your sex life? Instead of approaching sex as a natural, necessary, physical act, consider approaching it as a gift – an interest and an ability that can be cultivated. You will never be a great cook unless you experiment with new recipes, read cookbooks and practice cooking. You will never be a great tennis player unless you take lessons and play regularly. You will never learn to play the trumpet without hours of practice.

Don't assume that sex is any different. You won't have a great sex life unless you make it a priority to actually work on intimacy together.


Intimacy Requires Vulnerability

For emotional intimacy to grow, each partner must be willing to meet the other's deepest needs and protect the other's greatest vulnerability.

by Dr. Juli Slattery

The concept of vulnerability helps explain why men may be more likely than women to avoid intimacy, even within the context of marriage. Women are usually far more comfortable than men in expressing and discussing their feelings, which is necessary to becoming emotionally intimate. In other words, when it comes to relationships, women have home-court advantage.

Men may feel as awkward sharing themselves emotionally as some women do playing pick-up basketball. Would you risk your most precious possession on your basketball abilities? People take risks when they feel comfortable about their ability to cover the risk.

If a man is not confident in the arena of close relationships, risking vulnerability makes no sense to him. He concludes, "It is better to be safe than to be satisfied." Although a wife's fear of intimacy is not as obvious as her husband's, she may also struggle with taking the risk of vulnerability.

Intimacy requires that both individuals meet each other at the deepest point of their need. Mutual insecurities and humanity are exposed without defense, so that the other may choose to either embrace the need or exploit the vulnerability.

Ultimately, for emotional intimacy to grow, each partner must be willing to meet the other's deepest needs and protect the other's greatest vulnerability. This produces an environment of trust, allowing each other to feel safe to share more.

However, when vulnerability is met with rejection and pain, both the husband and wife naturally move away from sharing and toward self-protection. They each develop their unique ways of living together, but stay emotionally safe … and distant.

All relationships build on momentum. Every marriage is either moving toward greater intimacy or fleeing toward rigid self-protection.


Intimacy Requires Effort – and Creativity

Perhaps you have been surprised, even disappointed, to find that sex isn't the ready-made gift you were anticipating. It takes a lot of effort – and a bit of creativity – to make it work.

by Dr. Juli Slattery

Sex is a lot like LEGOs. OK, cut me some slack. As a mom of three boys, I think it's a good analogy. Consider this: The first time a child sees a box of LEGOs, he might be naïve enough to think that the box actually contains a toy like the cool picture on the front. Imagine his disappointment when he opens the box to find hundreds of seemingly random pieces of plastic instead of the Batmobile that was shown on the box cover.

The genius and fun of LEGOs is creativity. First, a child follows the directions to build the design on the box. But then, who can resist the desire to tear the blocks apart and build something new?

Back to the issue of sex. Culture may have given you a picture on a box – one of bliss, exquisite pleasure and oneness. Perhaps you have been surprised, even disappointed, to find that sex isn't the ready-made gift you were anticipating. It takes a lot of effort – and a bit of creativity – to make it work.

Most marriages experience some obstacle to physical intimacy: differences in desire, medical issues, recovery from sexual abuse, involvement with porn, a poor body image, to name a few. I'm sure you've had occasions, as I have, when you ask God: "Wasn't this supposed to be a gift? With all due respect, God, I think the gift is broken."

The Lord asks you and me to view sex as a gift of creating. Just like that LEGO set, the joy is found in building. Regardless of the frustration you and your spouse may face in physical intimacy, the Lord invites you to build something far more precious than a few moments of physical pleasure. Unselfishness, grace, forgiveness, unconditional acceptance … each can be developed while seeking the Lord through the challenges you face in the bedroom.

Of all the toys we have purchased for our boys over the years, only the LEGOs have avoided our garage sales. In fact, our boys seem to have grown fonder of their LEGO sets with each new creation they put together.

The gift of intimacy may require some effort, but it is designed to last and grow more deeply satisfying as the years go by.


Next Steps and Related Information

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